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Empire Waste

What’s the Matter With New York’s Democrats?

The party’s unforeseen struggles in the bluest of blue strongholds portend tumult to come.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
New York Governor Kathy Hochul

On Thursday, Joe Biden stopped in Syracuse to tout a new semiconductor plant. It was a visit that, in many ways, summed up a growing part of the Democrats’ closing midterms message: that Biden was not just bringing back manufacturing jobs to the United States but also loosening China’s grip on key technologies, such as microchips.

But Biden’s visit was notable in another way. Rather than travel to Ohio or Pennsylvania or Nevada—where Democrats find themselves in tight fights—the president was dropping in on a state that a Republican presidential candidate has not won for nearly 40 years and which he carried by more than 20 points two years ago. But Biden had to come all this way for a reason: to shore up support not just for vulnerable House candidates in one of the country’s bluest states but also to help save the suddenly unsteady campaign of the state’s Democratic governor.

Biden was speaking in New York’s 24th district, where Republican Brandon Williams—who has called the January 6 committee’s hearings a “Stalinist type trial” and proclaimed that he was “not critical” of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election—is currently leading Democrat Francis Conole. Meanwhile, Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents the Hudson Valley and is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is in such deep trouble that he’s spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of the DCCC’s money on his race in an attempt to avoid what would be a humiliating upset; a party chair hasn’t lost in a general election since 1980, and Maloney had already switched districts to avoid what he thought would be a more grueling fight in his own. Worst of all, Governor Kathy Hochul is locked in a tighter-than-expected battle with Lee Zeldin, who has not only surged in recent weeks but has also benefited from Democratic wheezing in what has been one of their safest spaces for generations: New York City.

This was a far cry from how Democratic chances stood mere months ago. Only recently, Democrats were on the offensive, forcing the GOP to spend big money to prop up flailing, Trump-backed candidates in states like Ohio. That state went to Trump by more than eight points in 2020—over the summer Republicans were pumping in tens of millions to support his hand-picked candidate, J.D. Vance. Herschel Walker, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters—all of these candidates were not only struggling but doing so poorly that they were pulling resources away from other winnable races in what looked like a wave election year. But with a week to go before the election, it’s Democrats who are on the back foot. And while you might expect the stakes in the battleground states to twist and turn, you wouldn’t expect it in places like New York, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. But there you have it: Nine House seats are in play, and Kathy Hochul’s runaway win looks more competitive than it should be.

Elise Stefanik, the upstate Republican and rising star who replaced Liz Cheney in the party’s leadership committee, is helping to lead the charge. This is something of a surprise if you have a memory longer than that of a goldfish. In 2016, Stefanik took great pains (all things being relative) to keep Donald Trump at arm’s length, merely indicating that she intended to support the “party’s nominee.” She voted with Trump only two-thirds of the time since 2018 and was vocal in her criticism of both Trump’s Islamophobia and misogyny and his signature policy: the border wall.

But ever since she came to understand how her bread gets buttered, Stefanik has remade herself as a gleeful and enthusiastic Trump backer. “America First is here to stay,” Stefanik recently told The New York Times, “and parties are determined not by the political leaders, they’re determined by the people.” She is helping to push the party’s message: a mix of capitalizing on fears about inflation and crime and stoking familiar Trump-era culture-war topics.

“I watch this stuff closely, and I feel I need a neck brace,” former congressman and DCCC head Steve Israel told the Times. “Midterms this cycle are the most unpredictable and fluctuating I’ve ever seen, but no state has demonstrated that more than New York.” Part of the issue is the state’s redistricting process went badly awry. Democrats in charge of redistricting essentially ran the same play that Republicans in states like Texas and Florida had recently executed, in which they redrew the maps to maximize partisan advantage. But the effort was blocked by the courts, and Democrats were forced to use a hastily drawn map newly full of contentious districts.

But there are deeper problems between the lines: Inflation and inflated concerns about crime are spiking at the wrong time. Hochul, who is not affected by redistricting, is nevertheless struggling to break through with voters, and Zeldin has run an aggressive, crime-focused campaign that has chipped in to her support in New York City. Now, after running an effective abortion-focused campaign over the summer, Hochul is rapidly pivoting toward crime and public safety. “You deserve to feel safe,” Hochul says in an ad her campaign has paid $1 million to run in New York City. “And as your governor, I won’t stop working until you do.”

Hochul’s problems aren’t merely about messaging: She is attempting to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who may cut a disgraced figure now but exerted a titanic effort, over nearly three terms in office, bending various aspects of the state party to his will. Hochul is not the most charismatic politician—she was selected as Cuomo’s running mate in part because she was viewed as someone who wouldn’t threaten his power, and the two barely had a political relationship. A western New Yorker, she’s also the first governor in the state to come from outside the New York City area in generations and, as such, is not as well-connected to the state’s financial and power center as those who came before her.

But the biggest concern may simply be voter enthusiasm—a problem plaguing Democrats outside the Empire State—as Republicans chip away at swing voters. Still, some of this is to be expected; that these tides are turning can simply be attributed to the historical tendency of the party locked out of the White House making substantial midterm gains. But these tidal forces aren’t supposed to lap the shores of places like New York. That they are serves as a potent warning for just how far things have turned for the party in a few short weeks, in districts and races that Democrats typically win handily. Whether this is a product of a dysfunction specific to New York or the sign of a national bloodbath to come remains to be seen. For Democrats, either ending would be a bad one.